My darkest hour
I knew I was in trouble when I failed to eat the chocolate croissant. It was 11pm, I had slept for 2.5 hours, and I could not get the damn thing down. It felt like trying to eat a paperback book.
It was Wednesday night and I was in Mortagne, the penultimate control of Paris-Brest-Paris 2019. I had ridden some 1100 km. There were just 120 km left, and I had 14.5 hours to cover them.
An easy task under normal circumstances.
But not now.
I could not possibly ride the remaining distance without having any food. Hence I started to wonder if the ride which, until a few hours ago, had gone so much better than hoped might actually end in a humiliating “Did not finish” (DNF).
I had heard stories of riders who had to abandon Audaxes after struggling to get food down. I knew it was a sign of dehydration but never experienced this myself before.
I had arrived at Mortagne three hours earlier in a sorry state. After leaving the previous control, Villaines, I rode with a great group that was led and organised by some top notch French Audax riders from Lille. I had done quite a lot of work at the front, which was a lot of fun.
Unfortunately, I enjoyed myself so much that I did not realise that I was riding myself into the ground.
I failed to notice how hot it had got during the afternoon, and I forgot to eat and drink on the bike as well. I blew up some 20 km ahead of Mortagne. The final stretch into the control was quite an ordeal. I arrived exhausted. My legs were just gone.
My original plan – driven by the misguided idea of finishing below 80 hours that I had developed after leaving Brest – was to eat and then ride on to Rambouillet without stopping for sleep.
It was blindingly obvious that this was not going to work. In Mortagne, after forcing half a bowl of pasta down and drinking two real beers plus one non-alcoholic and a coke, I checked into the dormitory and got 2.5 hours of sleep.
When I woke up, I experienced the pain au chocolate crisis. Hoping that mushy food may still work, I tried yoghurt and fruit salad instead. I also bought another non-alcoholic beer, a coke and a coffee.
The canteen was bustling, and the air was stuffy. I decamped and I took a seat outside, slowly eating my food and working myself through the various drinks, trying to gather myself and calm me down:
“Olaf, you know how to do this. You have plenty of time. You know how to do this. You have plenty of time …”
After half an hour or so, I felt confident enough to get back into the saddle. Fortunately, my legs had recovered a bit, and on the way to Dreux I was actually passing a lot of cyclists while I got very rarely passed myself. That was uplifting.
However, the stage seemed to drag on forever. Making matters worse, the temperatures in the early hours of the morning dropped to some painfully low levels, triggering a proper sense of humour loss.
I was cursing the route, and myself for not taking at least one more warm layer on the ride. A schoolboy error, as I knew from 2015 that the nights in Brittany and Normandy can get rather chilly.
In Dreux, things got a bit better as I met John L, a good British Audaxing friend. I had ridden large parts of LEL in 2017 as well as my 600 qualifier with him.
While John is a stronger rider than me, he was crazy enough to ride PBP on an upright trike so our pace was very similar. He arrived shortly after I did and we decided to ride the final leg together.
I was really glad about this, as John was a safe pair (well, triplet) of wheels. It was still rather chilly and I was starting to get severely tired. At one point, I began to suffer from double-vision. But chatting with John kept me awake and distracted me from the agony.
Some 5 km ahead of the finish, I realised that I may still be able to finish in less than 84 hours. I started a sprint which woke me up and got me warm. It’s quite ironic that I missed the sub-84-hour finish by 20 seconds … But I still finished some three hours earlier than four years ago, which was great.
Beyond the jitters
I was ridiculously nervous before the start. While I had successfully completed PBP in 2015 and LEL in 2017 and on both rides never was close to the wire, I did not know what to expect for PBP 2019. I had badly fractured my right patella in May 2018.
After two months off the bike, and a long struggle to regain my fitness, I was not entirely sure how the knee would behave.
My hill climbing skills, which were never great, had suffered the most as the muscles in the injured leg were gone and I had gained some weight.
Given the injury, making it to the start line of PBP was a big privilege in itself. But my leg played up a bit after my 600 qualifier, and I could not predict how it would behave on the second part of the ride.
After all, I was riding with a metal plate and ten bolts in my knee cap – effectively, I had more titanium in my body than on the bike.
My doctor had assured me that there was no risk of doing long-term damage to the knee (“you damaged it a year ago”) and told me that the worst which could happen was that it may swell so badly that I would be unable to carry on. Oh well …
After the 600 qualifier I had started to ride with an functional knee support bandage that stablizes the joint and helped a lot. Fortunately, the knee did not give me any issues on the whole ride.
Through the bulge
Due to a relatively late start time at 7:30pm on Sunday, and many more riders on the start line than in 2015, one of my biggest concerns were queues at the controls.
Four years ago, I started at 6pm and was ahead of the bulge early on – the queues at the controls were mostly ok.
But compared to 2015, some 1500 additional riders were in front of me – about the entire field of LEL.
As I was expecting pandemonium at the controls, I had decided to avoid eating there if at all possible.
Like in 2015, I was carrying a lot of food for the first night and bounced the first food stop in Mortagne after 117km. I just filled up my water bottles there.
My expectation of control chaos was not disappointed. Villaines was so packed in the first night that I had difficulties to find a room for my bike and then later struggled to find it again.
However, I was surprised – and pleased – to see many bikes from much earlier start groups, some G’s and H’s, who had left 2.5 hours ahead of me.
I just had a coffee and a croissant at a café right after the control and cracked on into the night.
In Fougeres, where people even had to queue to fill up water bottles, I ate at the McDonalds and left the control after getting my stamp. Afterwards, I mainly bought food in bakeries (ahead of Carhaix, where I both times left immediately after getting the stamp, and in Brest).
I was also lucky enough to have friends camping at the control in Loudeac who cooked pasta on the way out and bought a pizza on the way back.
With regard to overcrowding, the worst control was probably Brest, where I arrived after some 38.5 hours on mid-morning on Tuesday. I desperately needed a bog, and had to queue for 15 minutes to find one without toilet paper. Not great.
I did not even look at the restaurant queues in Brest and rode on, stopping for food at a bakery along the route.
All the controls after Brest were much quieter – eventually I had worked myself through the main field of the 90 hours group. In Fougeres on the way back, I even dared to have a warm meal at the control for the first time as there were no queues at all.
Dodging the time thieves
My moving average was markedly slower than four years ago: 20.5 kph compared to 21.6 kph back then. I mostly blame the fact that I gained some weight over the last four years. The ride definitely felt more hilly this time, although the elevation data suggest it wasn’t.
While I was just 5 per cent slower than in 2015, I got much better with regard to spending time off the bike.
This time, I spent a total of 24 hours off the bike, compared to 30 hours last time, and still got an hour or so more sleep (some 11 hours this time). This means I reduced the time I neither was on the bike nor in bed by about a third.
Besides mostly eating outside controls, I tried to stop as little as possible between them. During the last night, between Mortagne and Dreux, I turned this into a mental game in which I had to avoid “time traps” installed by “time thieves” along the road (this view, of course, doesn’t do any justice to the fantastic locals who were supporting PBP riders along the ride, voluntarily and for free!). Each roadside stand I passed gave me some inner satisfaction.
Despite the chocolate croissant crisis in Mortagne, I came around in 84 hours – at least on paper, that’s a full three hours faster than in 2015.
(To some degree, however, this comparison is a bit too flattering. In 2015, due to a detour, I rode 1241 km in total, compared to 1218 this time. In a like-for-like comparison, I was just two hours faster.)
With a little help from my friends
Like in 2015, a flurry of fantastic conversations with old and new Audaxing friends were the main highlight of the ride.
As I tried to describe in a different blog post, for me the social aspect is one of the best things in randonneuring. You meet an amazing variety of people from different backgrounds, and you have plenty of time to chat. If it goes well, you develop a special bond to someone.
This peculiar kind of cycling friendship rarely gets disappointed later on.
This time, the social part even started long before reaching Paris. Frank, a Mainz-based rider whom I met on a German cycling forum, had offered me a lift to the start. In total, we were four people in his car, and time flew as we were chatting about cycling, politics and other topics.
In Rambouillet, it almost felt like a family reunion. I run into many familiar faces from the UK as well as Germany and had great conversations with a number people I had not seen in ages.
En route, I also had great chats with a flurry of riders. Sian from England, who I rode with on the way back from Brest to Carhaix, stands out.
We had such a great conversation that I did not actually realize when we passed the peak of Roc’h Trevezel, the highest point of the ride.
Among the highlights were the hours with Mimo from the US, whose humour kept me going, Max from Germany on a bike with Tannus tyres during the first night, and Rainer from Switzerland, who was on a beautiful Isken bike and took part in the Concour de Maschine.
As I am very bad with names, apologies to the riders whose names I forgot – for instance the semi-retired Devon-based firefighter dressed in a “Dorset tea” jersey whom I rode with during the first morning and met several times later on (his name is Geordie, as Andrew P told me after I published this post…) , and the British rider in the sterling group into Loudeac, the Canadian chap working at a London PE firm ….
Running into some good old friends along the way and riding with them for a while was also special – in particular Haiko and Tobit from Dortmund, John from Birmingham, Jason from Essex, and Gerd from Erlangen.
Meeting Hendrik and Hans-Peter, who were not riding this time put camped in Loudeac and offered me a bag drop and food, was not only nice but rather helpful at the same time.
Apart from the uncertainty about my knee and my overall fitness, sleep or the lack of thereof was a big angst factor ahead of the ride. I had had a very busy time at work in the months prior to PBP and had accumulated a significant sleep deficit.
As a slowish 90 hours rider, I had little choice but to ride through the first night.
Despite my sleep deficit, this fortunately worked better than four years ago. I even managed to avoid my usual low point at around 3 to 4am, partly as I got distracted from any potential agony by discussing the mess that is Brexit with Geordie, Mr. Dorset Tea.
I only started to feel sleepy on Monday afternoon, and after leaving Tinteniac (346km) stopped twice for roadside naps (45 minutes in total). Like in 2015, I then rode until Saint-Nicolas-du-Pelem, where I booked a bed in the dormitory.
I got 4.5 hours of good sleep there and felt really strong when waking up. After leaving Brest, my plan for the third night was to ride to Tinteniac, get another 4 to 5 hours of kip there, and then ride back to the finish in one go without an additional sleep stop. In that case, I might be able to finish in just less than 80 hours.
This did not really work out though. In Tinteniac, all beds were occupied. I used my own sleeping kit instead but only had some uneasy 1.5-2 hours of rest. Later during that morning, when the sun was out, I again had a half-hour kip by the roadside.
Arriving in Mortagne totally shattered, I still knew that the idea of riding on without sleep had turned into a dangerous pipe dream.
Overall, I slept for about 11 hours during the four days, one hour more than in 2015. By and large, that was ok – I never felt that I was close to falling asleep on the bike, did not suffer from hallucinations and only had a brief bout of double-vision right ahead of the finish.
While I was riding a different bike than in 2015, my kit actually had not changed that much. Four years ago, I was on a full-carbon Specialized Roubaix. In 2016, I had replaced it with a Mercian Vincitore Special.
(The decision to go for a classic steel frame, rather than a carbon one, was purely a matter of taste. The Roubaix was a great bike – the only real disadvantage was that fitting mudguards involved some poor compromises.)
Like in 2015, I rode with mudguards, and a hub dynamo. This time, I had a 11-40 cassette in the back (50/34 in front), using a medium-range Ultegra derailleur and the RoadLink (you don’t really need that kind of low gearing for PBP, as there are no steep climbs, but 11-40 is my standard setup these days.)
The Mercian is maybe 1 to 1.5 kg heavier than the Specialized, but at least for my purposes I don’t think that this really makes a big difference. Prior to my injury in May 2018, I rode some of my fastest long Audaxes on the Mercian.
I was using a luggage setup very similar to the one PBP 2015 and LEL – an Ortlieb handlebar bag (I got a new one last year which is bigger) plus an Apidura seatpost back.
Both solutions are not 100 per cent perfect.
One issue is that access to the stuff in the Apidura bag is always a pain, another is that the handlebar bag tends to wobble up and down – one that rests on a front rag (a Gilles Berthoud one for example) may improve bike handling. I might revisit my luggage options in future.
The biggest change to my bike setup was that I got rid of the STi shifters after LEL and replaced them with bar end shifters.
I did this for two reasons. I found that STi shifters tend to work through gear cables relatively quickly – it takes me just between 5000 and 7000 km for the rear cable to disintegrate within the shifter.
Ironically, this led to gear cable issues both on PBP 2015 and on LEL 2017 and I needed to see mechanics on each ride. Bar end shifters are not just more gentle on the cables, it is also easier to replace a knackered cable.
The second argument against STi shifters was that on really long rides like PBP and LEL, my hands were suffering quite badly. Over the course of several days, my wrists started to hurt as the constant sideway movement became a strain.
Bar end shifters require just an up and down movement. They also force you to change your hand position more frequently, so I was hoping that I may have less issues with numb fingers – after both long rides, I had numb pinkies and index fingers on both hands for two to three months.
(The other option with regard to gear shifters would be electronic shifting, but that is a pricey alternative which also adds a lot of complex technology that can fail. When it comes to bike components, I like to keep it simple.)
PBP 2019 was the first real test for the bar end shifters, and they worked a treat. I had no cable trouble and significantly fewer hand issues. The right hand was totally fine after the ride, and on the left one, the numbness was far less severe than in the past.
Another real improvement was to carry more water on the bike. Last time, I rode with two 750ml bottles, and an additional 500ml bottle for the in the first night that I tugged into my jersey pocket.
This time, I had two 950ml bottles plus a 500ml bottle on the bike, using a strap-on bottle cage close to the bottom bracket. For the first stretch to Mortagne, I also carried two additional plastic 500ml plastic bottles.
While you can always stop and ask people standing at the roadside for water, I was able to ride basically without any meaningful stop up to Mortagne and then Villaines-la-Juhel. After the first night I only used the two 950ml bottles, while the third one was empty.
Oddly enough, like on PBP 2015 and LEL 2017, I still had to see a bike mechanic once. While the cables were ok, the rim tape on my rear wheel started to disintegrate. I had a blowout puncture shortly after leaving Villaines on the way back.
I fixed the issue with duct tape but I was worrying that the issue may still return. I briefly considered riding the 10km back to Villaines to get new rim tape there but decided against it. Fortunately, I made it to Villaines without a second puncture, and the mechanics there fixed the issue within 10 minutes.
Like in the past, I was carrying an emergency sleeping kit (the lightest Therm-A-Rest that is on the market, a light bivy bag and a sleeping bag inner liner). I used it only once in Tinteniac. However, the knowledge that I can sleep anywhere anytime if I need to gives me a lot peace of mind.
I really felt sorry for the people who were queing for an empty bed in Tinteniac – the ultimate waste of time.
Like in the past, I took two spare bib shorts on the ride. I would have loved to reduce it to one spare, or even ride the whole thing in just one pair of bibs. But after riding my 600 qualifier with no spare pair (not a great experience), I decided to play it safe.
However, unlike in 2015, I did not take a spare jersey. I wore a Merino tank top as a base layer and a lycra cycling jersey. Additionally, I was carrying arm and leg warmers, a padded vest, a waterproof jacket and some very light long-finger gloves.
As mentioned above, due to the low night temperatures, I was really missing one more layer. Next time, I will take one more Merino jersey, potentially a long-sleeve one.
The weather just ahead of the start was horrendous, with heavy rain on Saturday and early Sunday. However, the rain stopped around lunchtime on Sunday.
I think the conditions in the subsequent days were better than many riders realise. Apart from some isolated drops in Brest, I did not experience any rain. On most days, it was overcast and the day temperatures were in the low 20s – this is ideal for cycling. I did not use sun cream once.
Many riders complained about the headwind on the way out. There indeed was a headwind, but I did not find it too bad. It was actually nothing compared to the last day in the Fens on LEL 2017. For people aiming for a fast time, the headwind surely complicated things, as it slowed you down a bit, but I don’t think it was a show stopper.
From 2015 I knew that the nights in Brittany could get really chilly. This time, the forecasted minimum night temperatures a bit higher than four years ago (12-13 degrees, rather than 8-9 degrees).
Actually it felt much colder than that – in particular during the last night.
Overall, I think we can consider ourselves lucky weatherwise.
Some random thoughts
As many riders noted afterwards, one could witness quite a lot of appaljing road behaviour on PBP.
Undertaking – passing on the inside – was a common thing, and there were quite a few riders with poor or non-existing lights. When I told one that this rear light was not working, he swore at me in a language I could not understand …
Many riders seem never to have ridden in a group and were unable to hold a straight line. Also, while in groups, I found that many were totally unwilling to share the work at the front, which is really poor form.
The most surprising thing for me was an amazing number of riders who had to stop by the roadside to get sleep in the first night even before the food stop in Mortagne-au-Perche, which came after just 120km. After some 70 or 80 km from the start, a trail of destruction started with riders lying on on the walkways trying to sleep – I even saw one 5 km ahead of Mortagne.
Many of these riders seem to have come from Asian countries. I wonder if they were struggling with jet lag, with riding into the night, with the relatively low temperatures, or with all of the above?
I felt sorry for them as burning time off the bike so early on is a recipe for disaster. On PBP, the time limit on the way out is significantly harsher than it is on the way back. If you don’t ride through the first night, the average-speed rider barely stands a chance of finishing in time, as he or she will struggle to build a sufficient time buffer for sleep.
I’m also unsure if lying on the pavement without any cover at maybe 10 degrees was really an efficient way to rest.
I was also wondering how these riders managed to qualify in the first time. You have to complete a series of 200, 300, 400 and 600km in the run-up to PBP – if you manage to do so, you should be able to ride at least the 117km to Mortagne without any rest.
After my knee injury in 2018, the mere fact that I managed to qualify meant a lot to me. And I’m chuffed to bits that I managed to finish three hours quicker than in 2015.
However, while I had a great time, I have to admit that I did not enjoy the ride with the same intensity as I did four years back – probably because the novelty factor was gone.
I will always remember my first PBP as one of the best things I ever did in life.
This time, there were moments when I wondered if I was trying to chase my memories from the past in an attempt to relive them – that, of course, is never a good idea in life.
I also occasionally got a bit bored by the uneventful route and annoyed by rolling hills as well as the many mindless riders with poor road skills around me.
But then few people do PBP for the climbs or the vistas. What matters is the ride’s epic legacy, the incredible support by the locals who are lining the roads even in the middle of the night, cheering riders on and supporting them with free cake and drinks.
And the many encounters and conversations with old and new cycling friends.
One nice example for PBP’s magic was a table in front of house between Loudeac and Saint Nicolas du Pelem that I passed in the dusk. The people living there had long gone inside, but they had left a few bottles of water, wine and beer outside – and a sign saying “Servez-vous!” (Serve yourself).
Another amazing example was the restaurant at the control in Villaines, where the local kids were carrying the plates for riders.
In his fantastic PBP ride report, Allen O’Leary describes the great allure of PBP much better than I will ever be able to:
“As I rolled high on the ups and downs of the rollers out of Villaines I was suddenly struck by what I was doing. This was not a facsimile of an event, like Etape, this was the actual oldest running cycling event and I was doing it. (…) [B]eing involved directly was bringing a tear to my eye. An event older than the TdF, and, unlike the TdF, open to the amateur cyclo-touriste. Anyone with the qualification rides and the courage to enter could do this.Also the people. Every five k on this leg there are people offering you something, water, coffee, pastries. The people of PBP, all volunteers, are incredibly generous. They are patient with me and my cudgeling of basic French, they wait while my tired mind works out what to eat and drops coins over the table. Hundreds and hundreds stand by the roads shouting, clapping, urging us on. I recognise people on the way back who where there two days before.On this stretch of road there is free l’eau and cafe every five kilometres, just because they want to be involved. You want to stop at each one of those stalls and say thanks, but the time would vanish. There’s bagpipers too, and whole towns turn on hospitality tents which host sagging riders. […]I started the ride thinking it mine to ride and then came to realise the ride was theirs, had been forever, and they were enfolding me into the human richness of the experience.”
So did I regret coming to PBP? Not at all. Quite on the contrary, I know that I would have regretted it big time had I not taken part in this year’s PBP. It was a great target for my post-injury recovery, and shows nicely that I’m back in the game.
Moreover, overcoming my dark moments pain-au-chocolate crisis in Mortagne was one of the most intense Audaxing experiences I had in a long time, and I learned a lot from this look into the abyss, and avoiding it.
So will I return in 2023? I have to admit during the ride, I actually wondered if two times might be enough. But Cambridge-based Audax rider Alex Brown gave the only sensible answer to this question in his PBP ride report:
“Would I do it again? Afterwards I thought not. But who am I kidding?